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Gingrich Targets Democrats' Teflon Halo

By David Brooks
Sunday, May 17, 1998; Page C01

When my wife was a little girl in the mid-1960s and somebody asked her what her family's religion was, she said "Democrat." Her answer reflected the way in which, ever since Franklin Roosevelt and especially during the civil rights movement, the Democratic Party somehow transcended mere politics and became something of a moral cause. Even today, it is still widely regarded as the more altruistic of the parties.

But now Bill Clinton sits atop the most scandal-plagued Democratic administration of the century, and the Republicans have a once-in-a-generation chance to strip away the Democrats' remaining moral prestige. They won't bring down Clinton, and they may not even add to their 11-seat House majority. But if they can pound the words "Democrat" and "corruption" together in the public mind, they will have negated the moral inheritance that the Democrats have lived off since the days of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Republicans do not need to persuade voters that they themselves are beacons of ethical grandeur. All they need do is show that the Democrats are at least as venal as they are. From the Republicans' point of view, they'd be crazy to pass up this chance.

Newt Gingrich seems to understand the potential of the moment. Over the past few weeks, he has aggressively attacked what he calls Democratic corruption, declaring that he will mention the subject in every speech as long as he is speaker of the House. Wisely, Gingrich has emphasized that this is not about sex. The public already knows the Democrats are the hornier of the two parties (the voters even seem to admire them for it). And Gingrich stresses that this is not strictly about Clinton. Instead, Gingrich is going after the Democratic Party as an institution, depicting it as a party with corruption in its veins, plagued by campaign finance abuses and an irresistible compulsion to impede the course of justice.

Many conservatives are fixated on bringing down Clinton. But he will never run again, and he is largely spent as a governing force. The Republicans in Congress are gutting much of his second-term agenda -- education, day care, increased funding for the International Monetary Fund, extending Medicare. Clinton has become the political equivalent of the Acropolis: a pretty facade, but hollow inside. All that's left standing is his approval rating.

Gingrich's language shows that he is going after the party, not the party leader. He hits the Democrats for their alleged obstruction of the Starr investigation, for their refusal to grant immunity to campaign finance scandal witnesses, for their involvement in the Teamsters scandal, in which money was allegedly laundered through the Democratic Party. Gingrich is also emphasizing the Loral affair, in which the Clinton administration is accused of allowing a defense contractor and big donor to export missile technology to China. In an interview last week with my colleague Fred Barnes, Gingrich said his course of action is in the tradition of "Teddy Roosevelt Republicans." Gingrich is harkening back to the era, a century ago, when the Democratic Party machines were rife with corruption, and reformers like T.R. were the ones who vowed to clean them up.

Gingrich's offensive is not wildly popular with his fellow Republicans. Many GOP incumbents seem content to ride the budget surplus through a boring fall campaign and an unexciting re-election day that will benefit all incumbents, Democrat and Republican alike. Some Republicans want a more confrontational approach, but on issues such as tax cuts, IRS reform and partial-birth abortion, not scandal. In any case, Republican back benchers say, Gingrich lacks the standing to be leading a good government crusade. Even putting his own ethics troubles aside, when he gets up there in hyperbolic mode and accuses the Democrats of the most systematic "effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history," Republicans all around him have to stare down as if they have just found the most fascinating speck of dust on their shoes.

Still, there is a persuasive case to be made that the scandals will be the dominant issue of the campaign. In the first place, the speaker is so far out on a limb with this, it may be impossible for him to pull back. Second, the media will continue to force the scandals to the front. Nineteen of 34 questions at the last White House press conference were scandal-related -- a ratio that will be replicated by reporters in districts across the nation. (Would you be reading this far into a story on fiscal policy?) Already, newspaper editorial boards are challenging Democrats to defend Clinton. Earlier this month, the St. Petersburg Times editorial staff asked incumbent Democrat Rep. Jim Davis what he thought of the scandals. "I am not in the camp of, 'I believe the president.' " he said. "I am in the camp of 'Let's have a thorough investigation and learn the facts.' " When other Democrats start talking like that, then Republicans will sense weakness and ratchet up the attacks. At that point the issue takes on a (campaign) life of its own.

The era of good feelings that prevailed during, say, last year's budget deal is long gone. Indiana Rep. Dan Burton's use of the word "scumbag" to describe Clinton sent some members of Washington's society into a genteel swoon. ABC's Sam Donaldson tried to preserve his good standing by reporting the word as "scum you-know-what" on the air -- as if it's okay to say scum on TV, but not bag. Back home in their districts, however, some Republicans have found that many voters were glad to see a congressman speaking plainly, even if he was using needlessly vulgar language.

More generally, they found that voters wanted action. "Money is what moves things in Washington," said Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.). "Our supporters were calling up and saying 'Tell the Republican National Committee to stop sending me letters. I'm not going to send them any money until you guys do something.' " Broadcaster James Dobson, the most feared social conservative in the country, has ripped party leaders for having no backbone on issues such as abortion, federal funding for the arts and school choice. Dobson is reflecting a widely held conservative impatience. These ideological agitators don't have scandal politics in mind, but it's not as if the Republicans have a whole host of compelling issues they agree upon and can use against the Democrats. If you've got two sides squared off against each other looking for a confrontation, then eventually somebody is going to pick up the most potent weapon that happens to be lying around. And for now, the scandal seems to be it.

At the moment, Democrats seem happy to watch Gingrich set off on what they take to be his Pickett-like charge. Democrats tell each other that all he is doing is throwing a little raw meat to his base. ("The base" is the name Washingtonians give to those simpletons who actually believe in the ideas of their party. The Republicans are always said to be throwing "raw meat" to their base. Nobody seems to know what is fed to the Democratic base -- possibly raw asparagus.) But Democrats also are assuming that this tactic will backfire among moderate and swing voters, making Republicans about as popular as, say, Burton or Ken Starr.

It is true that Republican approval ratings could take a hit. But Democrats shouldn't chortle too soon. Many people support the Democratic Party because they think it is about more than self-interest. If the party loses that image, if it comes across as just another money-grubbing institution whose leaders are more interested in power than in principle, then that would be a devastating long-term blow. The donor base will shrink, morale will suffer and the remains of the party's holy fire will be extinguished. Does anybody really think the good government folks will give gobs of money to an organization they think resembles Tammany Hall?

If the Republicans can hang the taint of scandal around the Democrats' necks -- the way Tony Blair's Labor Party linked the Tories to corruption in Britain's last election -- they will improve their prospects in every fight for the next several decades. And if they do that, then Bill Clinton will be remembered for the following legacy: He balanced the budget, ended four decades of Democratic control of the House and squandered in eight years the moral capital the Democrats had built up over the previous 80.

David Brooks is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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